Literature of the NonWestern World
You should know something more about the Buddhist outlook that we first studied by reading the poems of Li Ch'ing Chao. Having read a description of this outlook 2 or 3 times & now having read both Li Ch'ing Chao & Basho, I trust that you know the 3 Buddhist principles: anicca, anatta, & dukkha.
This lesson should have given you some feel for Japan & the Japanese. Perhaps you were surprised to discover how undeveloped or backward life in Japan was in the 17th c. Basho illustrates that nearly everyone was involved in subsistence agriculture. No one traveled very far, either literally or figuratively -- in the sense of literacy & information. Perhaps Basho sought out harsh conditions of life. If so, he didn't seem to have to look very hard to find them.
Basho's haiku & the small scale & slow speed of his journey (cf. to Spanish conquistadors sailing half way around the world) -- all give an impression of the Japanese sense of miniaturism, which also contributes to the Japanese cultural attention to detail that was so evident when Honda cars reached the U.S. De Sotos & Oldsmobiles suddenly seemed behemoth & half finished.
Each word of a haiku must be "unpacked" for its associations & suggestions. Unfortunately, the only adequate way to do this is to be Japanese. In this way, Basho as well as Kojima, illustrate how insular the Japanese are.
Even though Basho is ardently Buddhist, his pilgrimage memorializes the wilderness of northern Japan. By doing this Basho contributed to Shinto, which is the indigenous mythology of Japan. E.g., Basho says, "I reflected that it is the way of our land for the miraculous powers of the gods to manifest themselves even in such remote, out-of-the-way places as this" (2121). There are no gods in Buddhism. Basho is thinking of the Shinto kami or gods that made the islands of Japan for themselves, because there was no place on earth good enough for them -- until they made Japan.
A middle-aged English woman, Lesley Downer, recently
followed the same path that Basho took. Her book is: On the Narrow
Road: Journey into a Lost Japan (1989). She says, "Everyone,
if they had the chance, would live in Tokyo" (12). Unlike Basho,
when Lesley slogs through the enervating August heat & humidity &
near jungle of the "deep interior," she finds many sweating Japanese pilgrims
doing smaller versions of what she is doing. Her book doesn't offer
to explain Basho, or if it does, it does so indirectly, as in this advice:
"You don't ask 'Why?' in Japan. You watch, listen, learn, admire, appreciate & occasionally ask 'How?' -- 'How do you make the ceremonial fire?' 'How do you wear the white rope?' -- but never 'Why?' Only uncivilised foreigners ask, in their brusque, direct way. & the Japanese usually don't know the answer" (221). Downer avoids the attitude of anthropological study to give us a sense of living with common folks in rural Japan. She also succeeds in illustrating how religious many Japanese continue to be.
Kojima gives rather strange Japanese twists to 2 perceptions that have become common in the last 50 years. The first is an illustration of colonialism. Of course the post WW2 American occupation of Japan for 5 years was not an actual instance of European colonialism. Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, provides a classic description of that process. It follows Joseph Conrad's great novella, The Heart of Darkness, that you no doubt read, if you took English 202. Kojima's story offers interesting echoes & variations to the now familiar study of European colonialism.
Kojima's 2nd theme also offers a strange Japanese twist on a familiar theme. That theme is a less than flattering portrait of America, Americans, & American values. Since we were not technically a colonial power, such portraits tend to be domestic, written by African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, & other victims of Manifest Destiny & Social Darwinism. The Americans in Kojima's story -- who are only a few years distant from the Great Depression -- are smug, shallow, vain, & over-bearing, even when they intend to be helpful. Their ignorance about everything Japanese is total. Like the British & Spanish before them, the Americans are here to do things their way, to make Japan into Kansas or Ohio.
Kojima's story was not written for an American audience. It was written for the Japanese. Kojima's major theme illustrates how lost & directionless the Japanese felt after the defeat in 1945. You should have noticed several Japanese cultural traits. Perhaps the most obvious is that the Japanese continue to be sensitive to hierarchy. Much of the point of an American school -- in the sense of teaching the Japanese the error of their ways -- was directed against such hierarchical (Confucian) thinking. The Americans did not dare assail the Emperor & consequently bumptious Gen. MacArthur, with his corn cob pipe, could do little to foster American style democracy & egalitarian thinking in Japan. Kojima's story illustrates that the American lesson was entirely lost on the Japanese. Every Japanese character is fully aware of his or her position in the social hierarchy. Indeed, much of the humor rises from the Japanese inability to figure out a similar American hierarchy.
You should have perceived the famous Japanese sense of discipline, propriety, & manners. Even though Isa wants to carry on a resistance movement against the enemy, he tries to conform to the dictates of Japanese (Confucian) manners.
Finally, Kojima's story suggests -- at least in
part -- why Japan became such a tremendous economic success in the last
half of the 20th c. Isa confesses that he feels like "he & his
colleagues were members of a pathetic race which had no place here" (2908).
The place is Japan! The American school principal apologies for the
Spartan & cheap construction of the school, saying "the budget was
barely 20% of what would be considered normal back in the States" (2913-14),
but Isa & his colleagues see only "magnificent buildings that we're
only allowed to peek at" (2912). After Admiral Perry destroyed the
Tokugawa policy of isolation, Japan played catch-up with the West.
The new policy created disaster when Japan sought to imitate the pattern
of European colonialism. Spain's colonial ambitions ended when England's
navy triumphed over it. Japan was similarly defeated by the American
military. Almost immediately, Japan switched tactics to flood the
world with meticulously fabricated hi-tech consumer goods. Surely
you pick-up on the tenacity of the Japanese character exhibited by Isa.
This is the end of unit 7. Next week we
will study a little bit of The Koran & midEastern culture.
See you then.